Written by: Barre Lyndon (play) & Jimmy Sangster
Directed by: Terence Fisher
Starring: Anton Diffring, Hazel Court, and Christopher Lee
Reviewed by: Brett G.
Hammer Studios is a known commodity to any horror fan. They are perhaps best known for their string of films based upon the same material as the early Universal films such as Dracula and Frankenstein. However, to think of Hammer as merely aping Universal's previous success is a great discredit to the studio, as the majority of the studio's output was based upon material other than those classic standards. The Man Who Could Cheat Death is one such offering, and it's a film that has no doubt been overshadowed by the studio's more famous offerings.
The Man Who Could Cheat Death is obviously concerned mostly with the film's title character whose given name is Dr. Georges Bonnet, an artist who has cheated death for more than a century. However, about fifteen minutes into the film, it becomes quite obvious that this isn't as great as it sounds when he kills a woman in a fit of insanity. As the film unfolds, we learn the logistics behind Bonnet's prolonged existence, and we specifically find out that he needs to replace a crucial gland to stay alive. In order to do this, he must enlist the help of a local doctor because his long-time friend and confidante, Dr. Ludgwig Weiss, has suffered a stroke. Bonnet just happens to cross paths with one Dr. Gerard and his lady-friend, Janine, a woman who had a fling with Bonnet in the past. Soon, all three are ensnared in a plot that could have deadly consequences for all involved as Gerard uncovers the truth behind Bonnet's prolonged life.
Even though the source material isn't quite familiar, any Hammer fan will find a lot of familiar names here. Christopher Lee needs no introduction, of course, in the role of Dr. Gerard; furthermore, recently deceased scream queen Hazel Court shines (as does her cleavage) in the role of Janine. Horror fans shouldn't be surprised at the excellent performances turned in by these two, and the lesser known names are up to the task as well. Anton Diffring especially turns in a great performance as the title character, who is both sinister and charasmatic at the same time. Like many horror villains before him, Bonnet does not seem overtly evil; instead, he is a bit of a victim of circumstance that been corrupted by his fate. In some ways, the character is a bit reminiscent of Dr. Frankenstein, as he is a bit of a mad genius whose ambition has grown out of control. There is one especially well-written exchange between Bonnet and Weiss that questions the role of science in natural affairs like death that recalls Mary Shelley's famous novel.
Hammer fans will also see some familiar names behind the scenes as well, as Hammer veterans Terence Fisher and Jimmy Sangster direct and write, respectively. These two are of course known for Horror of Dracula (along with a host of other Hammer films), a film that struck gold for Hammer the year before this film was released. As is the case with Horror of Dracula, The Man Who Could Cheat Death is a lean, energetic piece. As is usually the case with Sangster, any excess fat has been cut here, as viewers are presented with just the bare essentials in the plot. The film clocks in at a brisk 82 minutes, and each minute is packed with import. Fisher's direction is equally confident, and we see a lot of his signatures here: slightly gothic and sexual overtones, a dash of gore, and a slight fairy-tale quality. Cinematographer Jack Asher (another Horror of Dracula alum) returns here to give the film a vivid, colorful quality that will be familiar to Hammer fans. Indeed, this film is a Technicolor dream, and it's quite a beautiful horror film.
I'm not quite sure why this particular film seems to have been lost among its more famous contemporaries. While it's certainly not among the Hammer classics, it's an extremely well done film. The subject matter is intriguing, and all involved do a wonderful job bringing the film to life. My guess is that the story just might not grab audiences like Hammer's more fantastic offerings do. Dr. Bonnet isn't a vampire, werewolf, or zombie; instead, he's just a seductive artist that can live forever. Such a storyline doesn't exactly grab you, but there's a lot to like if you give it a chance. To modern audiences, the film will no doubt be considered tame, but, like many Hammer films, it does offer an excellently realized and somewhat graphic conclusion.
Luckily, Legend Films has plucked this one from the depths of Hammer obscurity with their recent DVD release. I'm happy to report that the film's visual restoration looks excellent. The Technicolor tones pop off the screen, and the film is very clear. The film exhibits a lot of grain during darker scenes, which is a good thing because it shows that Legend didn't feel the need to polish the film in an effort to make it look like a modern feature. The mono soundtrack is equally as adequate. There are no special features, but that's not a deal-breaker because it's taken quite a while for this film to be released on DVD (which is available exclusively at Best Buy) in the first place. All Hammer fans are going to want to buy this one, but it truly deserves a place in anyone's classic horror collection. Buy it!
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